Some 4-500 German University in Cairo students resumed their protest today, voicing their anger over a decision by the university’s administration to suspend 30 fellow students.
The students were suspended for protesting the lack of progress in the much-awaited student union. The students' parents were all sent letters informing them that their sons and daughters were suspended for violating “the university’s values and norms and its general regulations,” and that the students have threatened “their own safety, the university’s properties and the interest of other students.”
After receiving the letters, the suspended students were banned from entering the campus yesterday, which led fellow students to hold a protest from within the campus demanding that their colleagues be allowed to enter and the suspension order be revoked.
Mohamed Dawood, an engineering student in his senior year, who was among those sent the suspension order yesterday recounts the day with Ahram Online:
“We weren’t trying to protest, but were simply trying to enter the our university campus and were told that we weren’t allowed. When the students inside heard about this scandal, they demanded inside to let us in - a de facto protest.”
Today, the protests continue and students insist that they will continue until their demands are met. The protesters remind everyone that the problems did not start yesterday, but rather had been bubbling until 25 February when they demanded the formation of an independent student union - something they have already been campaigning for for years.
“I enrolled in the university in 2004 and since then we have been told that we can’t form a union,” says Mohammed Almehdar, one of the leaders of the protest, who graduated from the university in 2009.
He tells Ahram Online: “They never gave us a viable reason and only said that many unions have political affiliations and they were worried that the state security apparel would be after us.”
The real reason behind the ban, asserts Almehdar, was to curb the growing discontent the students had over the policies of the university. He adds that many of the students were made promises when they enrolled that were never fulfilled.
“We were promised a 50 per cent German staff and we have nowhere near that, our library is small, our computer labs are not big enough, and they promised us lecture halls with a maximum of 25 students but we had 250 per lecture,” says El Hader. “The gym and sports fields which were supposed to be set up a long time ago have not been finalised.”
Not to mention the constant increase in the tuition fees. “They keep increasing the fee - which is already hefty - without any explanation,” says Mustafa Eissa, an engineering student who was among those who were suspended. “We used to be allowed to re-sit an exam we failed for free and now it’s LE1000 and the second re-sit used to be LE1000 and now it’s gone up to LE2000.”
Almehdar began supporting the protest online blogging under the “conscience of an alumni,” and sent an email to the German affiliates of GUC, accusing the GUC chairman and founder, Ashraf Mansour, of interfering in every aspect of the running of the university and “stripped the institution of many fundamental German and universal educational values.”
The students, wrote Almehdar, were not allowed to “have a union, complain without being harassed and threatened with expulsion, or object to unfair treatment.” Some students had their courses dropped (even if they did attend); valid medical excuses were not accepted; they weren’t permitted to complete their final projects over the summer; they imposed semester fees on students who do their thesis abroad in German institutions, even though they did not attend GUC during that period; refused their international engineering certificates during the fourth year, as they were promised, thus leaving no choice but to continue and pay for the fifth year; and imposed a fee for such a basic right as viewing final exam grades.
However, says Dawood, the students agreed that the focus now should be on creating the long sought-after student union.
“We figure that once we get the union we can field our problems through it,” explains Dawood.
The accumulation of these frustrations caused protests to break out on the first day of classes, 25 February. The university administration sent delegates to the students and asked for a grace period to establish the structure and bylaws for the union, but when 10 March rolled around and no word came from the administration regarding the student union angry students staged another protest, but were shocked when they found the army entering the campus to disperse them.
“The administration called the army on us - they told them that we were trying to burn the university and cause damage, which is completely not true as our protests were completely peaceful,” says Eisssa.
After the negotiations the administration convinced the students to elect several representatives to put forward the students’ demands.
“Our main demand was that the student union have a representative in the university council and has a say in the decision-making,” says Dawood. “Maybe this request seems odd and may not be necessary in other universities, but we have a confidence crisis here and we don’t trust the university anymore. We need one of us to be always there in the meetings.”
The negotiations once again failed and a meeting between students and the administration was organised in a lecture hall in the university on 20 March. Almehdar, who had continued blogging about the crisis and had written a letter titled “Why Ashraf Mansour should go,” which he emailed to Mansour himself, was banned from entering the hall. The engineering graduate, who is a Saudi Arabian national, was accused of “having a foreign agenda,” and was kicked out of the conference.
"They kept telling me that I would not be able to speak up like that if I was in Saudi Arabia," says Almehdar.
Following this confrontation, about 50 students began a protest within the university campus and refused to budge, spending the night on the campus.
“They locked all the buildings so that we would have to sleep in the cold night and closed all the bathrooms so that we would not be able to relieve ourselves,” says Dawood. “They even tried to stop us from eating and drinking.”
The protest was dispersed the next day, but Dawood says the students were adamant to continue the protests, but after they received the suspension letter they were banned from entering, he says. Now the students demand not only that their suspension be revoked, but that the administration issue a formal apology.
“We wanted this union because we were never allowed to express our opinion - even a peaceful protest was smashed,” says Dawood. “We live in a dictatorship inside this university.”
However, the students’ suspensions may have hindered the situation. A German member of staff, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the protests are expanding by the day.
“They are growing every time,” says the staff member.
Indeed, they are getting support from sympathetic students from other campuses. Students from the American University in Cairo and the Future University joined the protests today at the GUC campus in a show of solidarity. More are expected to join them tomorrow.
The staff member added that the students may have a reason to be angry, saying that university does not abide by German values.
“We have a German curriculum, but there is nothing German in stifling freedom of speech. In Germany you are allowed to express your opinion and talk about your problems,” says the staff member. “There is mislabelling here: what’s written outside the package is something and what’s inside the package is something else. This is a German institution without German values.”